Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Have Better Faculty Meetings Now!

Here is the structure of weekly faculty meetings at the Berkshire Waldorf High School, which run 60-90 minutes and no longer. We begin around 3 p.m. and leave, in daylight, no later than 4:30 p.m., enough time for an hour at the gym and then dinner with the family.

2 min.
We read from Rudolf Steiner’s “Calendar of the Soul.”

15-30 min.
For the first part of our faculty meetings, we study an educational text by Rudolf Steiner. In the past few years, we’ve worked through Education for Adolescents, Towards the Deepening of Waldorf Education, and Balance in Teaching, and we’re currently well into Soul Economy. We read a paragraph at a time, passing the text from person to person. When necessary, we stop to discuss or question, as long as necessary. Our progress is slow, but we are thorough. Teachers bring in outside (non-Steiner, non-anthroposophical) research when relevant. Sometimes we read one paragraph that provokes discussion for the rest of our time; sometimes we read several paragraphs without comment.

One favorite story: In Education for Adolescents, Steiner makes a well-known and cryptic remark that posits the function of the human liver as analogous to the history of ancient Egypt (!). Rather than scratch our heads and read on, we decided to tackle this statement. Our life science teacher characterized the function of the human liver. And I, as a history teacher, gave a general overview of the history of ancient Egypt. By the end of this exercise—which took time in meetings over two weeks—it became clear that the concept of balance or homeostasis (and the expulsion of toxins) related to both. The liver “cleans” the blood and maintains many physiological balances within each of us. And Egypt shows remarkable balance in culture (religion, artwork) and politics through more than 2000 years of its history; and it repelled or expelled would-be invaders remarkably well.

5-30 min.
Any teacher may request any student be added to the agenda, but only for a positive, helpful purpose. In other words, you may not simply report that Giovanni isn’t doing his homework; you must have a suggestion for how we can help Giovanni get his work in on time. And the suggestion has to be something that isn’t simply to benefit your own classroom, but one that will benefit Giovanni or the school as a whole if the whole faculty knows about it.

Which of our students needs our attention? Is someone facing academic or emotional or social challenges? Is a clique forming? Are leaders leading? Do we have test results from a neuropsych or educational psych exam? Are there behavior challenges that we need to address? Do we need to place a student on academic or behavioral probation? Are new students integrating well into the school? Is a student not completing work? Do we suspect abuse at home? Have we learned something that it will be valuable to share among colleagues? Do we need to meet with a student? With his or her parents? With a couple of students? Or with a small group?

I often say that half of our work is to teach the subjects we are hired to teach, and the other half has to do with the growth, maturation, health, and development of our students. Without appropriate, constructive attention, we may teach math brilliantly but fail to assist a student who is floundering in any number of other ways. During this portion of our meeting, teachers compare notes, achievements, results, and impressions in order to help every student in the school who needs help. We do not have a “child study” form or ritual, but we try to conduct this part of our meeting with an eye toward our most important work: Teaching our students as well as we possibly can.

1-10 min.
What is coming up in the next week or so that we all need to know about? Field trips, open houses, changes in the schedule, school events, and on and on. Are we on the same page? Is everything planned that needs to be planned?

15-45 min.
Items include updating or clarifying policies and procedures; transportation planning (we’re almost a school without walls each afternoon, and making sure everyone who needs a ride has a ride takes longer than it does at many other schools); admission of new students (we have an Admissions Director, but, when each application is complete, it is brought to faculty meeting for a final decision on admission); reports on events and conferences; review of events just past in order to improve them for the future; consideration of student proposals (we are not a democratic school, but we include student views and ideas as much as possible).

2 min.
We read from Rudolf Steiner’s “Calendar of the Soul.”

1.     We give each item enough time for due consideration but no more. And each item may be considered only with a view to improving the school. You may criticize the way things are or have been done, but only if you have a reasonable, concrete, clear proposal for improvement. And if it becomes clear that we can’t reach agreement in a reasonable time, the item is tabled for the next meeting.

2.     We respect the school’s history, ancient and modern. We’re clear that, in the absence of a decision to change, the default position, for better and worse, is the way things have been. You don’t like the way the opening assembly was conducted? Suggest a change that we can all agree to, or it will continue as it has, whether you like it or not. The wheel does not need to be reinvented; but it benefits from evolutionary change.

3.     Our agendas contain no last-minute entries. Forgot to add something you believe is important? You’ll learn; and life will continue. We learned from Caroline Estes, who represents Native American and Quaker streams of consensus decision-making, that “there are no emergencies.” (When a rare real emergency pops up, there’s no time to decide if it’s an emergency or not. “The school is on fire; shall I put this item on the agenda? Or perhaps we should we just go fight the fire?”)

4.     Although all faculty members are solicited for agenda items, the Faculty Chair creates the agenda, allots time, and decides—in conversation with faculty members outside the meeting—which items either don’t belong on the agenda or may be addressed effectively outside the meeting.

5.     We are clear that there are exactly two decision-making bodies in the school—the Board of Trustees (which has responsibility for the financial health and legal representation of the school, for planning, and for fundraising—we are remarkably conventional in this; that is, like other independent schools) and the Core Faculty. Administrators shepherd items but do not decide. And items that require Board and Faculty consideration are sent to a Board-Faculty Working Group (that can only send items to the Faculty or the Board for eventual decision). This ensures that there is no “meeting after the meeting” at which decisions mysteriously change. Also, if you don’t speak your mind in one of these two meetings, you simply have no other avenue to be effectively heard.

6.     We work really hard to make decisions based on principle, not on particular circumstances or on personalities. And if a principle isn’t clear, we back up to clarify it for ourselves before applying it.

7.     Teachers and Board members serve on committees that may meet between Board or Faculty meetings, but, otherwise, we have no additional meetings in the week.

8.     We’re inclusive. Our admissions director, Board chair, business manager, part-time teachers, even parent volunteers are invited to our meetings. Yes, there are occasions when we have to ask someone to step out for a brief executive session, but it’s clear that these are times relating to possible conflict of interest or confidentiality. We have a circle of teachers and others committed to the school, not an “inner circle,” sometimes called a “college of teachers."

9.     We’re a high school incorporated separately from our elementary school. Concerned about student dress guidelines, for instance? We have our own, and don’t (often) have to worry about a conflict between high school dress and elementary school dress. To take a minor but annoying and persistent item.

10.  What? No group meditation? No. To our knowledge, Steiner never spoke of meditation as a group activity or as part of a faculty meeting.

Of course our meetings are not perfect, nor is our school. We’re human. Feelings get hurt. People are uncomfortable. People don’t get their way. The schedule isn’t ideal. The teaching isn’t perfect. But, by focusing on our purpose as a school, we’re pretty good at getting from week to week without profuse, lengthy, stressful, unproductive faculty meetings.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

“Love your duty.” Really? (More anthroposophical translation woes)

In several places, in English translations, Rudolf Steiner asks us to “love our duty.” I have heard sincere anthroposophists tie themselves into knots to explain this injunction, even when supported by Goethe’s definition of duty as what arises when we love what we command ourselves to do (paraphrase). And I have heard critics blast Steiner for contributing to authoritarianism in Germany before WWII.

But these interpretations, pro and con, miss the point.

By “duty,” Steiner does not mean what, say, the British navy means by it, as in Gilbert & Sullivan’s, “We’re sober men and true/And attentive to our duty.”

English is a Germanic language, and the German word “Pflicht,” translated as “duty,” entered English as a different word: “plight.”

“Love your plight” isn’t a more accurate translation, necessarily, but it does cast the statement in a different light.

We’re born into the world and, despite our best or worst efforts, face things that require us to act or not to act. This is our plight, and choice is our “duty.” (In this sense, “duty” assumes an almost existential sense, as in Sartre’s concept of an “original choice.”)

We can “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as Dylan Thomas might have it. But look where he ended up. And look where we all end up. Could we, instead, learn to love the inevitable dying of the light, following a lifetime of loving what life sends us?

In “The Tempest,” noble Gonzalo loves his plight, and sees the island on which he’s (apparently) shipwrecked as “advantageous to life… how lush and lusty the grass looks.” While vile Sebastian, on the same enchanted island, sees no greenery at all. Their perceptions—and ours—mirror their inner states. And, to the extent that we may choose or improve our inner states, we may improve, if not our plight, at least our perception of it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why I oppose tuition remission

Tuition remission (for those who don't know) is the discounted tuition given to the children of independent (private) school teachers and, at many schools, administrators and staff. Most private schools offer remission of between 50% and 100% of tuition for the children of full-time and, in many cases, part-time employees.

Independent school personnel, in general, are often less-well paid than their public school counterparts, and they receive fewer benefits, as well. But tuition remission can be worth tens of thousands of dollars per year. And tuition remission is generally not taxed (I'm unclear of the law around this, and am simply writing based on decades of experience in private schools).

The rationale is that remission is a benefit that doesn't cost the institution much and that allows it to attract teachers--and their families--who might otherwise seek employment elsewhere.

But, especially at small, underfunded private schools like many Waldorf schools, the institution can't really afford to give away tuition, and may offer remission simply to compete for teachers.

Further, classing teachers and parents differently can cause unnecessary friction or tension between groups that need to work together in order to best educate the children at the school. If a teacher has a partner who earns a good living, for instance, remission may be unnecessary, and comparatively unfair.

And remission can cause friction among employees--let's say a part-time teacher gets it and an administrator doesn't. Wherever you draw the line, some won't get it who believe they should.

The solution is simple: Class all applicants for aid together, and offer aid with the policy that each deserving applicant will receive a package that makes it possible to attend the school.

Let's say that a school that costs $20,000 per year gives 80% remission to full-time employees. That is, full-time employees are asked to pay $4000. For some, this may be a stretch; for others, not. But why not ask teachers to submit financial aid forms along with everyone else (they'll have to do it when their children go to college) and offer them the same $16,000 discount as aid if they qualify? That way, everyone is in the same boat, and one source of friction between parents and teachers is eliminated.

I know that my view is not popular--teachers often feel underpaid and undervalued, and see remission as one redress for these situations. But I don't believe we can be idealistic only when it's convenient. Let's address issues of pay and value separate from remission.

The school at which I teach is entering its 15th year. We've never offered remission. We're fully enrolled for the coming school year. And we know we're all in it together.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Rudolf Steiner's Art History (Introduction by Stephen Sagarin; shameless self-promotion)

Click here to order Steiner's Art History lectures, with my introduction. No royalties, but glad these are available, with reproductions. 30% off for a limited time...

Friday, May 13, 2016

Rudolf Steiner’s Only Known Reference to a Nature Table

“You will remember something else that I have mentioned. When he was seven, Goethe built himself an altar to nature. He took his father’s music stand and placed on it plants from his father’s herbarium and minerals and crowned it all with a little incense candle that he lit by focusing the beams of the morning sun with a magnifying glass. This was an offering to the great god of nature—a rebellion against everything imposed on him by education. In the very essence of his nature, Goethe was always a human being longing to be educated in the way people ought to be educated today.” –Steiner, R., Practical Advice to Teachers, 104

Clearly, this reference does not mean to suggest that this is what teachers "should" do, simply that kleine Johann did this in rebellion against whatever he experienced of German education in the mid-1700s...

Do Germans or Austrians other than Waldorf teachers build nature tables, following Goethe?

Is there any other source for the nature table? 

Inquiring elves want to know.

Monday, May 9, 2016

After “The Nine-Year Change”: Shouldn’t You Read Paradise Lost with Ten-Year-Olds?

Dear Colleagues,

Does this passage reflect your teaching practice?
“As teachers, whenever we approach growing human beings, we must note the striking contrast between the prepuberty and postpuberty years. Let us take a concrete example: There is Milton’s Paradise Lost, which would be good to use in our lessons. The question is, when? Those of you who have thought through what has been said so far and have understood my remarks about the right time to introduce narrative and descriptive elements will find that this work by Milton (or epic poetry in general) would be suitable material after the tenth year. Also, Homer will be appreciated best when taught between the tenth and the fourteenth years. On the other hand, it would be premature to use Shakespeare as study material at this stage, since, in order to be ready for dramatic poetry, students must at least have entered puberty. To absorb the dramatic element at an earlier age, students would have to drive something out of themselves prematurely, which, later on, they would definitely miss.” Steiner, R., Soul Economy, 229, emphasis added.

For almost all of us, I suspect, the answer is, “no,” so we are due for some reflection. Clearly, I believe, Steiner is not asking us to teach the whole texts of Milton or Homer, nor, however, is he asking us to teach simplified “children’s” versions of these texts.

Further, this passage may call into question the common introduction of Shakespeare into elementary school curricula. How many schools traditionally perform a Shakespeare play, usually a comedy or romance, in 7th or 8th grades?

Steiner is asking us to take relevant passages, prepare the students to learn from them, and then, finally, to read and discuss them (see last post for more on discussions between teachers and students).

For instance:
“Hence you should always try to leave the actual reading of a piece until last, first dealing with everything you can give the children to help them understand it. If you prepare for the reading as well as you can ahead of time, then you will not work like a pedant, but help make the whole piece clear and understandable, and thus enhance the children’s enjoyment and satisfaction.” Steiner, R., Discussions with Teachers, 6, pp. 70-71.

Steiner asks us to prepare similarly for the recitation of poetry—and Milton and Homer (and Shakespeare, of course, at the right age) should be both read and recited:
“The lessons in a school should be arranged in a way that allows recitation to be closely connected to the musical element. The music teacher should be in close contact with the teacher of recitation so that instruction in one subject follows directly on instruction in the other and so that a living relationship between the two is established. It would be particularly useful if the music and recitation teachers could work together in the classroom, so that each could point out the links between the two subjects. This would be one way to eliminate a truly dreadful teaching method that is still very much prevalent in our schools—the abstract explanation of poems. This abstract explanation of poetry, verging almost on grammatical dissection, spells the death of everything that ought to work on the child. Interpretation of poems is quite appalling.

“You will protest that interpretation is necessary if the children are to understand the poem. I would counter that all the lessons must be structured to form a totality. This has to be discussed in the weekly meetings of the teachers. If a poem is to be recited, then the other lessons must encompass whatever might be necessary to shed light on the poem. The teachers must properly prepare the children to bring to the recitation lesson whatever they need to help them understand the poem. If, for instance, the children are to recite Schiller’s “Der Spaziergang,” the cultural, historical, and psychological aspects of the poem can quite easily be presented to the children, not by going through the poem line by line but simply by telling them whatever they need to know about the content. The recitation lesson itself must focus on the artistic presentation.” Steiner, R., Practical Advice to Teachers, 43

Toward the end of this period of child development, ages 10 to 14, Steiner refers several times to reading Schiller:
A teacher: How far should I go in history before turning to something else? In the seventh grade, I have gotten as far as the end of the Caesars in Roman history, and in the eighth grade, I am at the Punic Wars.

Dr. Steiner: Make an effort to get to Christianity and then do two months of German. Do Goethe and Schiller in the eighth grade.

[Dr. Steiner tells an anecdote about a child who is asked, “Who are Goethe and Schiller?” The child replies, “Oh, those are the two statues sitting on the piano at home.”]

You should teach German history differently in the eighth grade than in the seventh.
Steiner, R., Faculty Meetings, 63 (January 1, 1920)

We should consider the English equivalents of Goethe and Schiller, if any, for our English classes. And, in history teaching:
A teacher reports about the humanities in the seventh and eighth grades. There is a discussion about Goethe’s biography and also his Poetry and Truth, as well as Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters.

Dr. Steiner: I would recommend Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit [Thoughts on the philosophy of human history], in which he presents the human being as a summation of all the other natural realms. World History should continue right up until the present.
Steiner, R., Faculty Meetings, 66 (March 8, 1920)

I would recommend that you have the eighth grade read the first chapter of Schiller’s Thirty Years War. They can learn a lot from that. It contains many things that go up to the present.
Steiner R., Faculty Meetings, 239 (March 23, 1921)

…I think that Schiller’s historical works would be good reading. Such books are excellent for thirteen and fourteen year olds.
Steiner, R., Faculty Meetings, 339 (April 28, 1922)

So we’re talking about grades 4-8, and the names Steiner recommends—Milton, Homer, and Schiller—are among the greatest, most profound writers and thinkers of the literary world. It’s worth pointing out that Milton is English, Homer is Greek, and only Schiller is German. Clearly, for Steiner, their ideas and the expression of these ideas are generally more important than the language or culture that these authors represent. (A good English stand-in for Schiller--poet and philosopher--would be S. T. Coleridge, a founder, with Wordsworth, of the Romantic movement in England.)

I don’t think asking us to reevaluate our teaching based on these indications represents a turn toward more “academic” teaching, although it could certainly have that effect in the wrong hands. Steiner is not asking us to make our teaching harder or to load on challenging work that’s over the heads of our students, or that asks them to grow up too fast. He’s letting us know that he believes children from about the age of 10 on can begin to contend with the deepest and most beautiful ideas that human literature and history (and, eventually, philosophy) have produced. What are these studies, the humanities, called in German? Geisteswissenschaften. The spiritual sciences.

(It’s worth pointing out that elsewhere in his work Steiner takes Milton to task for perpetuating a dualistic or twofold view of the world, a world that finds its way even into the movie “Animal House”—an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering in our ears. Steiner’s view was that Milton mistook Lucifer for a “good” angel, calling on our egotism, rather than our individual moral imagination, for our behavior to conform to “goodness.” So, when I learn that Steiner recommends reading Milton with, say, 5th graders, I imagine teaching in such a way that I can help my students, in lively conversation in the days following our reading, to see that this dualistic representation is shallow or false… It strikes me, too, that Paradise Lost is an excellent two word description of the change that children go through between roughly ages 9 and 10.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Telling Tales in Waldorf Schools: A Perspective on Rhythm and Review

Compare the two passages below. In one, Steiner appears to speak against what many teachers in Waldorf schools practice—asking children to retell a story the following day. (Too often, they call this portion of a lesson “recall,” or “review,” although there’s little in Steiner’s work to justify these designations. More about what it should be below.) In the next, it appears he’s speaking in favor of this practice of retelling a story.

But you must speak about it before you let the children retell the story. The very worst method is to tell a story and then to say: “Now Edith Miller, you come out and retell it.” There is no sense in this; it only has meaning if you talk about it first for a time, either cleverly or foolishly; (you need not always be clever in your classes; you can sometimes be quite foolish, and at first you will mostly be foolish). In this way the children make the thing their own, and then if you like you can get them to tell the story again, but this is of less importance for, indeed, it is not so essential that the children should hold such a story in their memory; in fact, for the age of which I am speaking, namely between the change of teeth and the ninth or tenth year, this hardly comes in question at all. Rudolf Steiner, Kingdom of Childhood, p. 64 (Boldface added)

Above all, we must try to cultivate as much simple speaking and conversation with the children as possible during the first year. We read aloud as little as possible, but instead prepare ourselves so well that we can bring to them in a narrative way whatever we want to tell them. Then we seek to reach the point where the children are able to retell what they have heard from us. We avoid using passages that do not stimulate the imagination and make as much use as possible of texts that activate the imagination strongly, namely, fairy tales—as many fairy tales as possible. Having practiced this telling and retelling with the children for a long time, we start in a small way to let them give brief accounts of experiences they themselves have had. We let the children relate something they like talking about. With all this telling and retelling of stories and personal experiences, we develop the transition from the local vernacular to educated speech by simply correcting mistakes the children make, with- out being pedantic about it. At first they will make many mistakes, but later fewer and fewer. Through telling and retelling, we develop in the children the transition from vernacular to educated speech. In this way, the children will have reached the desired goal by the end of their first year at school.
Rudolf Steiner, Practical Advice for Teachers, pp. 168-169

Here’s what I derive from a comparison of these passages:

1.) The primary point of telling and retelling is not the development of memory, but the development of correct speech. And that was more important for dialect-speaking Germans who needed to be educated in “Hochdeutsch” than it is for modern Americans. Not to say that our students don’t need education in proper speech.

2.) "As many fairy tales as possible" probably does not mean telling the same story over and over. How to judge pace: Are the students lively and interested, or are the fidgeting, yawning, and rolling their little eyes?

3.) The first portion of a lesson, often somewhat erroneously called “review” or “recall,” asks for the teacher to talk to the students, beginning in early grades by talking “cleverly or foolishly” about the story, and, in later grades, leading a discussion that involves contemplation, discernment, and coming to judgment, as in this passage:

When the children arrive at school on the following morning they have, without knowing it, pictures of the previous day’s experiments in their heads, as well as pictures of what—in as imaginative a way as possible—I repeated, recapitulated after the experiment. The children I then confront have photographs of the previous day’s experiment in their heads. And I shall now reflect on yesterday’s lesson in a contemplative way. Yesterday I experimented, and in reviewing the experiment I then appealed to the children’s imagination. In today’s lesson I add the contemplative element. In doing so, I not only meet the pictures in the children’s heads, but also help to bring the pictures into their consciousness. 

Remember the progression: I teach a physics lesson, make an experiment, then recapitulate the stages of the experiment with- out the apparatus. On the following day, we discuss the previous experiment, contemplate it, reflect on it. The children are to learn the inherent laws. The cognitive element, thinking, is now employed. I do not force the children to have mere pictures in their heads, pictures they have brought with them from sleep, pictures without substance, without meaning. Just imagine the children coming to school with these pictures in their heads, of which they have no knowledge. If I were to immediately start with a new experiment, without first nourishing them with the cognitive, contemplative element, I would again occupy the whole of their being, and the effort they would have to make would stir up these pictures; I would create chaos in their heads. No, above all, what I must do first is consolidate what wishes to be there, provide nourishment. These sequences are important; they adapt to, are in tune with, the life processes.

… In the first part, I occupied their whole being; in the second, it is the rhythmic part of their being that must make an effort. I then dismiss them.

When they return on the following day they again have the spiritual photographs of the previous day’s lesson in their heads. I connect today’s lesson with them by a reflective, contemplative approach—for example, a discussion on whether Alcibiades or Mithradates was a decent or an immoral person. When I make an objective, characterizing approach on the first day, followed on the next day by reflection, by judgments, I shall allow the three parts of the threefold human being to interact, to harmonize in the right way.
Rudolf Steiner, Education for Adolescents, pp. 51-53
(This book is now called Education for Adolescents, but the lectures were a course given to the entire Waldorf School faculty, and published as The Supplementary Course (supplementary to Steiner’s first training course, in three volumes, Study of Man, Practical Advice for Teachers, and Discussions With Teachers).

This passage draws our attention to other points worth considering:

1.) The “review” occurs on the first day of a lesson, following a demonstration or presentation.

2.) There is no mention of "circle time" or the activities included in it (this is a larger topic that I intend to address in an upcoming post).

3.) There is no mention of a three day rhythm in Steiner’s work on carrying a lesson overnight.

4.) There is no mention of a “three part” lesson in thinking, feeling, and will, as too often claimed by teachers and teacher educators. 

5.) The progression Steiner outlines is this:
     a.) First day: Call on the child's whole being.
     b.) First day: Review--and add to the lesson--in imagination.
     c.) Let the child sleep.
     d.) Second day: Return to discuss, retell (after conversation), contemplate, come to 
           judgment, discern, conclude.